Thinking outside the box
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Thinking outside the box
by Jonathan Rest

Damien Comolli talks leadership, how American sports executives have forged his thinking and judging character, not video tapes.

From a recruitment perspective, the simple idea of data is how do you find an edge when the market is looking at an asset that is clearly overvalued and how do you find value in the market that the market is not already looking at?
Damien Comolli
President, Toulouse FC

An early adopter of data


“How far back do you want me to go?” joked Comolli when asked to reflect on his association with data-led recruitment.


It has been a career-long obsession for Comolli, one he admits he was ridiculed for, especially in his time in England in the early 2000s. But now there’s nothing but respect and admiration for the Frenchman, considered one of the most progressive thinkers in the game.


Comolli is currently President of Toulouse FC, the French Ligue 2 club under the ownership of US private investment group RedBird Capital.


It’s a match made in heaven for Comolli: last year RedBird managing director Gerry Cardinale co-founded RedBall Acquisition Corp, a special purpose acquisition company, with baseball executive Billy Beane of ‘Moneyball’ fame.


Moneyball was an eye-opener for Comolli. Having read the book, he eventually got in contact with Beane, General Manager of MLB’s Oakland As, and quickly struck up a rapport with the American, even spending a week in California learning about his data analysis processes.


Taking up the story, Comolli told delegates at the recent TransferRoom virtual Deal Day summit: “I came back from the US and I said to Daniel Levy, chairman of Tottenham, where I was working at the time, ‘I want to do something about this. This is what they are doing, what do you think? I think we should invest.’ He said, ‘if you think it will give us a competitive advantage, let’s do it.”


Comolli spent three years at Tottenham, between 2005 and 2008, where his task from the board was formidable: break into the top four, with the youngest team in the Premier League and spend a third of what the big clubs are spending.

The magic of Modric


So began a data-led recruitment overhaul.


“I came out of this meeting thinking we can never do that,” Comolli said. “I needed to identify what the top 4 do that we don’t do. I pulled out Opta data and found out we were behind on possession, possession in the final third, possession in the opposition half and quality of chances created. Once we understood the technical and tactical gap, we tried to identify players using data that would help us close that gap.


“And that’s why we went for the likes of [Dimitar] Berbatov, [Luka] Modric and [Gareth] Bale, because we were convinced they would help us close that gap. From a recruitment perspective, the simple idea of data is how do you find an edge when the market is looking at an asset that is clearly overvalued and how do you find value in the market that the market is not already looking at?”


The signing of Modric is one that particularly pleases Comolli. A small, wiry midfielder plucked from Dinamo Zagreb, Modric has gone on to win 17 major trophies at Real Madrid and was named World Player of the Year in 2018.


Comolli said: “Our scouts were totally convinced about him. The scouts and managers of the big 4 [in England] were not. They were saying he’s too small, not physical enough, he doesn’t regain the ball, tackle, assist or score goals. Yet he’s with us and our algorithm says he’s assisting a lot, makes the first press and helps someone else win the ball and his ball retention is phenomenal.


“After that bigger clubs than Tottenham at the time started to offer £40m, £50m for him. I thought to myself those clubs cannot be wrong so there’s something there. And then we know the rest of the story… That was a player that was undervalued by traditional scouting and admired by data.”

A judge of character


A trust in data, certainly, but traditional scouting has not been cast aside at Toulouse, as Comolli works to return the team to Ligue 1 after narrowly missing out on promotion this year. Scouts assigned to different territories identify players, who are then cross checked with “a deep data dive”.


But for Comolli, the days of watching players 24/7 are over.


He explained: “We put a great emphasis and long hours into finding out how the player is from a character and personality point of view. I have been scouting players for 27 or 28 years. I don’t look at players now. I look at data, some tapes, all the reports. So I know what the player does and doesn’t do, but while I used to travel a lot to watch players and full games, now I spend this entire time finding about the player - how does he behave, how does he train, is he stable in his relationship, is he coachable, does he like football? That is a key aspect of our recruitment.”

Everyday improvement


Going beyond the on-field performances and tapping into a prospective new signing’s mindset is all part of the quest for ‘marginal gains’ that Comolli strongly adheres to.


“It’s constantly in our culture, from the first day I got to Toulouse. Innovation, progress and improving,” he noted. “I use those words all the time, whether it is with players, staff, at academy level, the kitman, the driver. How do we improve? Everyday we need to be better than the previous day. This attitude is engrained on our culture.”


An extension of that is handing over responsibility. Comolli may be top of the food chain at Toulouse, but he needs to be fed information.


Again, it’s a lesson learned from California. 


Comolli explained: “I’m a massive fan of the San Francisco 49ers and I was speaking to their CEO at a conference and then later on the phone. He says something I absolutely love; at the 49ers the best idea wins, no matter who comes up with it. 


“We apply that at Toulouse. Whoever brings the best idea wins. It cannot be the head coach, the CEO or myself that come up with the best ideas. We need to be in the meetings and be flooded with ideas. If it’s constantly us coming up with ideas, we have an issue. If it's constantly our staff coming up with ideas then we have the right environment and structure. 


“People at the club know if they have an idea, they submit it, if we think it’s good we run with it. No matter who comes up with the idea.”


Damien Comolli's interview in full can be viewed here.

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